Ambushes were all too common along Route 19, but U.S. Army truckers soon learned how to protect themselves. For the men of the 8th Transportation Group, armor-plated gun trucks with plenty of firepower helped keep the enemy at bay.
It was late in the day on September 2, 1967, as the 39 vehicles of the 8th Transportation Group departed Pleiku, in Vietnam's Central Highlands, on their return trip to Qui Nhon, on the coast of the South China Sea. The trucks of the convoy were empty, having delivered their loads to the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and other American units in Pleiku earlier in the day. The 100-mile return trip along Route 19 covered some of the worst terrain for trucks in Vietnam. The road around Pleiku was relatively straight and flat, but as the road headed east toward Qui Nhon, it traveled through two of the most treacherous passes in the world: the Mang Yang Pass, located about halfway between Pleiku and what was the 1st Cavalry Division's base at An Khe; and the An Khe Pass, about 50 miles west of Qui Nhon. Convoys generally slowed down and stretched out over a wide area as the trucks negotiated the winding climb. The 8th Transportation Group's convoy had passed over the route early that morning with no difficulty. The men hoped that the return trip would be an even easier affair. However, in Vietnam it never paid to relax.
At 1855 hours, the convoy was approximately 10 miles east of Mang Yang Pass and six miles west of An Khe. A 5,000-gallon fuel tanker, located near the end of the convoy, was having trouble keeping up and had effectively split the convoy into two parts. There was already a 500-meter gap between the two elements, and the convoy commander was becoming concerned. He only had two M-151 jeeps armed with 7.62mm M-60 machine guns for convoy protection, and if the convoy was split up, the two elements would not be able to support one another if they were attacked.
Suddenly, the enemy sprang an ambush. A 57mm recoilless-rifle round slammed into the lead M-151 jeep, instantly killing one man and wounding two others. At that moment 29 5-ton trucks were caught in a 700-meter-long ambush. The enemy infantry company, hidden in the tree line on the south side of the road, poured rifle and machine-gun fire into the trucks. In a matter of minutes, the second, third and fourth vehicles were disabled by recoilless-rifle fire or command-detonated mines.
Call For Help
Nor did the enemy neglect the second part of the convoy. Almost simultaneous with the attack on the main part of the convoy, enemy 57mm recoilless-rifle gunners scored a direct hit on the straggling 5,000-gallon refueler. The drivers dove for cover alongside the road. They tried to return fire, but they were too disorganized and the enemy was too strong. All the battered Americans could do was call for help.
Fortunately for the truck drivers, a rifle company of the 1st Cavalry Division (often referred to as the 1st Air Cav) was stationed nearby. In the gathering darkness A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, located less than a mile east of the ambush site, boarded helicopters and headed out to help their comrades. It took them 15 minutes to get to the ambush. By the time they arrived, it was all over; the enemy had melted back into the jungle. Artillery and gunships hammered the tree line, and an hour later a Douglas AC-47 "Spooky" gunship arrived on the scene to add its miniguns to the defensive effort. The enemy troops were long gone by that time.
Grim Day For The Eighth
The Americans lost seven killed and 17 wounded, and 30 vehicles were damaged or destroyed. No enemy casualties were found. Without the loss of a man, the enemy, estimated to be a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) company, had virtually wiped out an American convoy. It was a grim day for the men of the 8th Transportation Group.
The 8th Transportation Group's involvement in the war began in October 1966, as America's activity in Vietnam increased and intensified. Earlier that year, the American military had moved far beyond the role of advisers and technicians. Americans were now fighting the war. At the beginning of 1966, there were only 184,300 Americans in-country. By year's end that number had more than doubled to 385,300.
Escalating American Needs
The arrival of large numbers of American combat troops had brought a quick response from the Communists. Enemy strength rose from an estimated 180,000 to 280,000 men in-country by the end of 1966. In addition to local guerrillas, this force included NVA regulars as well as main force Viet Cong (VC). These forces were organized along conventional military lines (i.e., battalions, regiments, divisions) and were well-led and well-trained. The local VC guerrillas were of uneven quality and were spread out across the hamlets and villages of South Vietnam.
Throughout the course of the year, American and NVA troops clashed in a series of battles that covered the length and breadth of the country. During 1966 the Americans launched Operations Crimp, Masher and Double Eagle, Utah, Hawthorne, Prairie and Attleboro, among others. Fierce battles between the two forces were also waged in the An Lao and A Shau valleys.
The escalating number of American combat troops and the increasing frequency of operations and battles brought with it an ever-growing demand for supplies. Moving the implements of war from the United States to Vietnam was not a great problem. However, unloading, organizing and distributing all of the necessary "beans, bullets and bandages" required a massive logistics organization and buildup.
Supply Routes Activated
To support the growing U.S. presence in Vietnam, the 1st Logistical Command had been activated on April 1, 1965. The unit was located in Saigon and was commanded by Army Colonel Robert Duke. The command originally had a strength of only 17 officers and 21 enlisted men. Despite its small size, the command was able to put together a coordinated logistics plan that called for the establishment of two major base depots and five support commands in Vietnam to support the allied war effort. The depots would receive supplies as they arrived from the United States and then send them along to the smaller support commands for distribution to tactical units stationed nearby.
The main supply routes initially were rivers and the ocean. Once enough tactical transportation arrived in-country, supplies would be moved by road. While tons of supplies were arriving and being ferried throughout South Vietnam, the 1st Logistical Command built two depots -- one in Saigon, the other in Cam Ranh Bay. The Saigon depot provided supplies to the Saigon support commands; the Cam Ranh Bay depot supplied the Cam Ranh Bay, Qui Nhon and Da Nang support commands.
Hitting The Roads
However, it was not long before the tactical transportation arrived. The infantry units had already moved inland and were setting up base camps. On August 12, 1965, the 4th Transportation Command was activated in Vietnam. Its mission was to provide all the expertise and equipment needed to clear the various ports of cargo and move it along to inland destinations. That mission soon overwhelmed the command's assets and capabilities, however, and another command, the 5th Transportation Command, was activated at Qui Nhon. In addition, individual support commands received tactical truck units as they arrived in Vietnam so that they could carry out their missions more effectively.
The 500th Transportation Group had two truck battalions under its command and was assigned to Cam Ranh Bay. The 48th Group, which had the 6th and 7th Transportation battalions under its command, was in Saigon. The 8th Transportation Group, which had the 27th, 54th and 124th Transportation battalions under its command, was in Qui Nhon. In the fall of 1967, the 57th and 159th Transportation battalions were also assigned to Qui Nhon as part of the 4th Transportation Command. The 8th Transportation Group and its three battalions would bear the brunt of the ambushes around An Khe. Their mission was to provide logistical support from the port at Qui Nhon to the various American and allied units in the II Corps area. Their main customers were the 1st Air Cav at An Khe, the provincial capital of Pleiku in the Central Highlands, and a Republic of Korea army base located at Song Cau.
History Of The Eighth
The 8th Transportation Group was formed on December 9, 1943, at Fort Lawton, Wash. It was originally called the 8th Traffic Regulation Group. After training in Washington, the group was transferred to the European Theater of Operations, where it served in northern France and the Rhineland campaigns. In June 1946 it was deactivated at Reims, France.
The unit was reactivated on October 15, 1949, and served with
Army units in Germany throughout the 1950s. In June 1966, the
8th Transportation Group was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash.,
when it was notified of its impending movement to Vietnam.